For the next two posts I will be considering how the ideas of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison can be used in conjunction with the concept of comic book continuity to reach some strange, exciting conclusions about the nature of the printed comic book universe and our own, more fictional, reality. These are big, unwieldy concepts so it’s split into two posts. First of all it’s worth clarifying our terms. What do we mean by continuity?
Each single issue of Spider-man or Superman is but a small element in one of two gigantic narratives known as the Marvel and DC Universes. Ros Kaveney suggests that these two seventy year old continuities are, “the largest narrative constructions in human culture…and that learning to navigate them was a skill-set all of its own” (2008:25). Jason Todd Craft calls such constructions ‘large scale fiction networks’ and notes that these universe are ‘emergent structures’ (as does Kaveney) : “the initial parameters…-parallel and ongoing serial adventures, produced by a variety of writers and artists for hire-resulted, over time, in unpredicted behaviours, specifically intertextual connectivity and a slowly encroaching sense of narrative history” (2004:105). Each ‘universe’ must be understood as a, “retroactive story structure, which imposes a continuity upon all the episodic comic books published before as well as after the universe’s advent” (ibid: 105-106).As Richard Reynolds describes it, while narrative continuity may seem a familiar idea to anyone who has ever watched a soap opera, continuity as practiced by Marvel and DC, “is of an order of complexity beyond anything to which the television audience has become accustomed” (1992:3).
Continuity is a product of ‘crossover’. The first use of crossover took place two years after Superman debuted; All-Star Comics#3 introduced the Justice Society of America, demonstrating that superheroes with their own serials could exist together.
But it was the Marvel Comics of the 1960s that really consolidated this notion of the ‘shared universe’ populated by human and non-human characters interacting with one another regularly. Alberich et al. (2002) have even mathematically demonstrated that the Marvel Universe behaves in a similar manner as ‘real-life’ social networks, such as the collaborative networks between movie actors or scientists.
The Marvel and DC characters live, work and adventure in cities and countries that are known to exist, e.g. New York, and others that are fictional, e.g. Superman’s Metropolis or the Eastern European country of Latveria, home to Marvel’s Dr. Doom. Outside of these cities and countries are a large number of hidden cities and countries Marvel’s Wakanda for example or DC’s Themysciria, island home of Wonder Woman. There are also undersea kingdoms. Both Marvel and DC are home to versions of Atlantis, where they house Namor and Aquaman respectively. This is Earth in Marvel and DC universes.
Each of these earths, in turn, exist within a widely populated cosmos. In the outer space of Marvel there exists the long-warring alien races of the Krees and Skrulls, as well as the space-faring Shi’ar Empire as well as alin demi-gods such as Galactus and Thanos. DC’s space-opera element includes the planets Rann and Thanagar, the planet Oa, home to the Guardians who created the Green Lantern corps.
At the lower end of the scale are found microscopic universes, and beyond the material cosmos are immaterial, magical realms. Gods, both from known and imaginary pantheons populate these dimensions. Marvel is host to the embodied personifications of Eternity, Death, and the Lords of Chaos and Order, a number of characters who claim to be the devil (Mephisto, Belasco, Azazel) and who preside over their own ‘hells’, as well as the Celestials, vast space-gods who have intervened in human evolution at certain key points. In the DC Universe there are Kirby’s New Gods, warrior angels from heaven such as Zauriel, the demon Etrigan , and a curious recurring genesis motif of a hand reaching out from the centre of the newly born universe.
In fact, the DC Universe has a pronounced magical bent to it in ways that Marvel comics more scientised take on magical themes does not. So for instance, while in Marvel comics the Norse pantheon are actually a highly evolved race of alien beings from another realm that humans mistook for Gods because of their apparently divine powers, DC’s Superman can count magic just below kryptonite as one of his weaknesses, and apparently without the term ‘magic’ needing any materialist explanation. DC is also home to ‘the green’, an abstract space that connect all plant life-and plant-based heroes and villains and the ‘speed force’ (“A flowing world of mystery, silver, morphing hyper-dimensional gels”), which several characters with super-speed derive their power from. Without delving further into the metaphysics of comic book universes the scale of such constructs should, by now, be apparent.The fact that superhero narratives take place in such large-scale universes is borne out by the way that writers outside of the ‘big two’ of Marvel and DC deliberately set out to set stories in pre-existing universes laden with history, as in Kurt Busiek’s Astro City or Alan Moore’s ABC line of comics.
These universes also exist in time. Not just their publication history but entire chronologies dating back to the dawn of man and earlier, not to mention the end of time and beyond. Nor do these points in time remain static. Comic book history can be rewritten. Retroactive continuity changes, or ‘ret-cons’ are when “…the assumed past of a comic or some other franchise is changed in order to make sense of current continuity” (Kaveny, 23). Such ret-cons are not always welcome, indeed io9 once published an amusing list of the 15 dumbest superhero ret-cons of all time. Less problematic are those stories that take place in parallel universe along divergent time-lines. The long-running Marvel series What If..?, for example, examines parallel universes born from minor divergences in mainstream Marvel continuity, asking questions like:
Meanwhile, stories published under DC’s Elseworlds or All-Star banners are said to take place in universes distinct from the continuity of DC’s main line of titles. These alternate universes are also able on occasion to cross-over with the ‘main’ universe. So we are in fact talking about the DC and Marvel Multiverses. More information on the Marvel Multiverse, and a list of known realities within it, can be found here. For more on the DC Multiverse click here or here for a list of known universes.
Mind-meltingly, these ‘multiverses’ have also crossed over with one another (see pictures below or click here for more on inter-company crossovers) so in fact exist within an even bigger frame-work, an unofficial, un-named meta-verse that contains all fictional universes.
In the late 1970s, before entering the industry proper, the late comic writer-editor Mark Greunwald, published a fanzine titled OMNIVERSE: The Journal of Fictional Reality. Dealing primarily with issues of continuity it featured articles by Greunwald and others such as, “A Treatise on Reality in Comic Literature,” and “A Primer on Reality in Comic Books,” which attempted to systematize parallel dimensions and time travel in comic books (there’s a nice little article on Greunwald here). The concept of the “Omniverse” can be thought of a structure containing the sum total of all universes. DC Comics had their Multiverse and Marvel Comics had one of their own, but both were subdivisions of the same overarching Omniverse (which encompasses every other fictional reality). Variations on this idea appear within superhero comics themselves fictitious theoretical models of the narrative complexity that the genre trades in. In Planetary, for example, there is the concept of the ‘snowflake’. As one character describes it:
This is the shape of reality. A theoretical snowflake existing in 196, 833 dimensional space. The snowflake rotates. Each element of the snowflake rotates. Each rotation describes an entirely new universe. The total number of rotations are equal to the number of atoms making up the earth. Each rotation makes a new earth. This is the multiverse.
Attempts to conceptualize such a theoretical structure have existed before. Perhaps the most celebrated are to be found in the works of Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges, whose short stories the Garden of Forking Paths and the Library of Babel have been seen as prefiguring the structure of the internet; moving via hyperlink from subject to subject without hierarchical classification. It should not be surprising to hear that another of Borges’ variations on this theme, The Aleph– “a point is space and time that contains all other points” (Ndalianis, 2009: 288n3)- has found its way into the comic book continuity of the DC Universe via Alan Moore’s run on Saga of the Swamp Thing and also appeared in his aborted Image series 1969.
The DC mini-series The Kingdom introduced the concept of Hypertime, described as, “the vast, interconnected web of parallel timelines which comprise all reality”. Hypertime comprises a central timeline (the DC Universe main continuity) but that important events can cause divergent ‘tributaries’, branching off the main timestream to form their own realities. Unlike the many worlds interpretation however, these realities can intersect, and frequently do: “sometimes feeding back into the central timeline, other times overlapping it briefly before charting an entirely new course”. As Grant Morrison explained in one interview, the theory of Hypertime:
Allowed every comic story you ever read to be part of larger-scale mega-continuity, which also include other comic book ‘universes’ as well as the ‘real world’ we live in and dimension beyond our own…it was also about how the world of fiction relates literally and geometrically to the world of ‘reality’…We all live in Hypertime-in our 3-Dimensional level of hypertime, which can be seen as CUBE TIME in relation to the DCU’s LINE TIME, we can pick up comics and leaf through them, flipping in any direction-‘time travelling’ back and forward through the ‘continuity’ like some new Doctor Who! (read the interview here)
On a related note, in his book Supergods, Morrison writes of a realisation he had whilst reading Doom Patrol after consuming psilocybin mushrooms (come on, we’ve all done it) that
Although each isolated panel seemed posed and angular, the characters were filled with life and charged with meaning. they interacted with us: made us laugh, cry, feel afraid, anxious, excited. Thy were living character, and their reality was pulp and ink. What real world was this paper slice of the living DC universe? A 2-D universe, hidden in plain sight, growing and breathing in a strange symbiotic relationship with its audience in the “nonfictional” world above it.
Accepting the reality of these 2-d universes existing in line-time Morrison goes on to make a distinction between the comics creator as missionary or as anthropologist:
I chose to see writers like Alan Moore as missionaries who attempted to impose their own values and preconceptions on cultures they considered inferior—in this case, that of superheroes. Missionaries humiliate the natives by pointing out their gauche customs and colorfully frank traditional dress. They bullied defenseless fantasy characters into leather trench coats and nervous breakdowns and left formerly carefree fictional communities in a state of crushing self-doubt and dereliction. Anthropologists on the other hand, surrendered themselves to foreign cultures. They weren’t afraid to go native or look foolish. They came and they departed with respect and in the interests of mutual understanding. Naturally, I wanted to be an anthropologist.
There are two main things to note here. Firstly, Morrison places the comic book universe in a spatial relation to our own universe (2-D Line-time/3-D cube-time), but not an ontological hierarchy. Which us just a fancy way to say that our universe, despite its extra temporal and spatial dimensions, still exists within the structure of hypertime, and that whether they are composed of flesh or ink all realities are equally fictional and all fictions equally real. In this sense the various ‘fictional’ concepts explaining continuity can be seen as forms of ontological anarchy, whereby the reader is challenged to decide what’s real and what’s fantasy. I’ve written more about ontological anarchy elsewhere on the blog.
Hypertime is akin to the Everett-Wheeler Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics which “implies that all possible alternative histories and futures are real, each representing an actual “world” (or “universe”)“. Which is to say, crudely, that everything that can happen, does happen. Moreover, the concept of the multiverse is increasingly apparent in modern theoretical physics (see here), and although the maths is much harder, such concepts do not stray that far from their comic book counterparts. Indeed, writers such as Morrison are also happy to draw upon related concepts such as M-Theory, and Brane cosmology to bolster their fictional concepts (see also the Monster group from the mathematical field of group theory which inspired Warren Ellis’s concept of the snowflake discussed above-more details here maths fans!).
If the bleeding edge of contemporary physics matches up to comic book cosmology (or vice versa) it is also worth noting that there are solid philosophical reasons for taking the idea of fictional realities seriously. the philosophical school of fictional realism takes the position that because fictions exist, fictional characters exist as well: “There are fictional entities, in the same sense in which, setting aside philosophical disputes, there are people, Mondays, numbers and planets“. Much like the mathematics behind the monster group such philosophical considerations rely on a grasp of logic that is beyond my tiny mind but if anyone would like to follow it up there are some interesting articles on the subject here, here and here.
It would be undestandable at this point if the reader is experiencing something like information overload and feels a little like this:
A reasonable enough reaction I think. As such we will leave the discussion here for now but be sure to return next time for Part 4 where we move from the scientific and philosophical implications of comic book continuity to considering their more mystical properties. See you there!